A few days ago I was interviewed by Business Insider about the addictiveness of the card game Solitaire (also known as Klondike and Patience). The ‘hook’ for the Business Insider article (no pun intended) was that May 22 is National Solitaire Day (NSD). A quick look on the online National Day Calendar confirmed that NSD does indeed exist (a celebration day that only began for the first time last year) and the website also pointed out that the game is over 200 years’ old and that Solitaire “truly went viral” in 1990 when Microsoft included the Microsoft Solitaire game in Windows 3.0 (as a way to teach people how to use the mouse on their computers). The NSD webpage notes that:
“Over the past 28 years, Microsoft Solitaire has been providing great entertainment to hundreds of millions of players in every corner of the world…In 2012, Microsoft evolved Solitaire into the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, which features five of the top Solitaire games in one app. Since then, the game has been played by over 242 million people and has become so popular that each year 33 billion games are played with over 3.2 trillion cards dealt!”
Back in 2000, a short article on internet addiction in The Lancet by Peter Mitchell noted that one of the pioneers in internet addiction research, the clinical psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack claimed to have a problem (a “near addiction”) playing Solitaire. Orzack was quoted in Mitchell’s article as saying: “So now I don’t have a computer at work. [My playing Solitaire] was getting that serious”. Orzack was also quoted in the Business Insider article. Her Solitaire playing was a “growing obsession” and she neglected her work and lost sleep because of her Solitaire playing. She said: “I kept playing solitaire more and more – my late husband would find me asleep at the computer. I was missing deadlines. I knew something had to be done”.
As far as I am aware, there is no empirical research about addiction to Solitaire, and I’ve never come across a published case study. However, I have mentioned Solitaire in a number of my papers over the years but all of them were in my critique of Dr. Kimberley Young’s taxonomy of the different types of internet addiction. Young claimed there were five different types of internet addiction (‘cyber-sexual addiction’, cyber-relationship addiction, ‘net compulsions’, ‘information overload’ and ‘computer addiction’). In a number of my publications in journals such as the Student British Medical Journal (1999), Addiction Research (2000), and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (2006), I argued that the typology was flawed and that most of the examples Young provided were addictions on the internet, not addictions to the internet (and echoing my assertion that individuals are no more addicted to the internet than alcoholics are addicted to bottles).
The reference to Solitaire was in relation to Young’s final type of internet addiction – ‘computer addiction’. One of her examples of ‘computer addiction’ as the playing of Solitaire on computers. (I found this strange particularly because the example didn’t even rely on being on the internet – it was merely about individuals being addicted to playing Solitaire on computers and laptops). Young never provided any empirical evidence that she had ever met or treated anyone with an addiction to Solitaire, just that being addicted to Solitaire would be classed as a ‘computer addiction’ in her typology.
Young is not the only social scientist to use Solitaire as an example in an addiction typology. In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Science, Jawad Fatayer outlined what he believes are the four types of addiction – alpha addictions (addictions that impact the body and physical health such as nicotine addiction and food addiction), beta addictions (addictions that impact the mind and the body such as alcohol and other drug addictions), gamma addictions (all behavioural addictions), and delta addictions (two or more addictions experiences simultaneously). Addiction to Solitaire was listed as a gamma addiction (but again, there was no empirical evidence to support the claim that Solitaire addiction actually exists).
Business Insider spoke to two other psychologists in addition to myself. Dr. Chris Ferguson (with whom I have co-authored a few papers) said:
“It’s important to recognize the difference between really liking something and having a clinical addiction. People (say) ‘I’m addicted to cupcakes’, ‘I’m addicted to chocolate’ meaning ‘This is a really fun thing that I like to do a lot’. There’s a huge debate that goes on in the field right now about whether video games can be compared to things like substance abuse, or if video games are more similar to hobby-like activities that many people enjoy — and some people might overdo…a fixation with Solitaire is more of a behavioral addiction – an obsessive behavioral pattern that can be a sign of underlying mental distress or illness. People who have mental health issues, or are simply under stress, tend to be drawn to things that are fun and distracting. And that’s mostly good, actually. It’s just that sometimes, for some individuals, they may begin to really overdo those activities as a form of escapism…It’s not about technology. It’s about mental health”.
A clinical psychologist, Anthony Bean said:
“There are some clear signs that Solitaire might be playing too big a role in your life. (If you’re) noticing you’re putting more time than other areas into the game and, let’s say, not paying attention to your family, not paying attention to work, not paying attention to school”.
My contribution to the Business Insider was taken from an email I sent the journalist. Very little of what I sent was used. I was asked two specific questions: (i) what characteristics of the game Solitaire might make it addicting? and (ii) what should people be aware of as signs of a disruptive addiction to Solitaire (or gaming in general)?
In answer to the first question, I wrote that addictions rely on constant rewards (what psychologists refer to as reinforcement) and each game of Solitaire can be played quickly and individuals can be quickly rewarded if they win (positive reinforcement) but when they lose, the feeling of disappointment or cognitive regret can be eliminated by playing again straight away (negative reinforcement – playing as way to relive a dysphoric mood state). I also stated that addictions typically result as a coping mechanism to other things in a person’s life. They use such behaviours as a way of escape and the repetitive playing of games can help in such circumstances. For the overwhelming majority of people, such playing behaviour will be an adaptive coping mechanism but if the game takes over all other aspects of the person’s life and compromises their relationships and their education/occupation (depending upon their age), this becomes a poor coping strategy because the short-term benefits are heavily outweighed by the long-term costs.
In relation to the second question, I outlined what I believe to be the six core criteria of addictive behaviour and outlined them with what I believed a genuine Solitaire addiction would constitute. My response was purely hypothetical because I have never met or even heard of anyone being genuinely addicted to Solitaire. So, hypothetically, Solitaire addiction would comprise anyone that fulfilled all of the following six criteria:
- Salience –This occurs when Solitaire becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually playing Solitaire they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with Solitaire).
- Mood modification –This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of playing Solitaire and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
- Tolerance –This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time spent playing Solitaire are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in Solitaire, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend playing Solitaire every day.
- Withdrawal symptoms– These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person is unable to play Solitaire because they are ill, have no computer connection, etc.
- Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time playing Solitaire
- Relapse– This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive Solitaire playing to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical at the height of excessive Solitaire playing to be quickly restored after periods of control.
Finally, I just want to reiterate that I know of no evidence to support the contention that there are individuals genuinely addicted to Solitaire. However, I do think it’s theoretically possible even though I’ve yet to meet or hear about such individuals.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Fatayer, J. (2008). Addiction types: A clinical sociology perspective. Journal of Applied Social Science, 2(1), 88-93.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Internet fuels other addictions. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 428-429.
Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Mitchell, P. (2000). Internet addiction: genuine diagnosis or not? The Lancet, 355(9204), 632.
National Day Calendar (2018). National Solitaire Day. Located at: https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-solitaire-day-may-22/
Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.
Young K. (1999). Internet addiction: Evaluation and treatment. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 351-352.
“The speed world record for a single attempt [of solving the Rubik’s Cube] is 5.55 seconds, set by Dutchman Mats Valk last year. The world championship is determined by averaging three attempts. The current champion is 18-year-old Australian Feliks Zemdeg who averaged 8.18 seconds last year. To ensure fairness, a computer generates a randomised cube which all the competitors are given. The record for most Rubik’s cubes solved in 24 hours is 4,786, set by Milan Baticz of Hungary…There is a one-handed world record – held by Zemdegs – of 9.03 seconds. Fakhri Raihaan of Indonesia boasts the feet-only record of 27.93 seconds” (BBC Magazine, April 2014).
Back in 1981, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers that spent far too much time playing on a Rubik’s Cube (RC). Once I had mastered how to do it, all my friends and I would sit at the back of our classes having RC races. In fact, I and two of my friends were once given a detention by my mathematics teacher for continuing to race each other despite many warnings to stop. My typical time to complete the puzzle was around 90 seconds (although having done it recently in trying to teach my children, I took nearer five minutes). The reason I recount this story is that a few days ago, a report appeared in the BBC News Magazine headlined “The people who are still addicted to the Rubik’s Cube” followed by one in The Guardian (‘Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing’). The author of the BBC article (Tom de Castella) noted that:
“In the 1980s Rubik’s Cubes seemed to be everywhere, but there are still legions of people obsessed with the coloured puzzles. The record for a human is 5.55 seconds. A robot can do it in 3.253…The Magic Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. After being relaunched in 1980 as the Rubik’s Cube, it sold an estimated 350 million around the world.As an object it has charm – its colours, the distinctive rattle as the pieces turn, a pleasing feel in the hand…The traditional cube has six faces each with three squares by three. Every face is a different colour – white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. That is, until the cube has been thoroughly scrambled. The challenge then is to return it to its original state with each side a single colour. It all relies on impressive engineering – an internal pivot allowing both the rows and columns to turn.It is devilishly difficult. There are said to be 43 quintillion permutations – the number of possible positions the cube can hold…Some see it as a challenge – like swimming the Channel or climbing Everest – that must be overcome. There was a spike in sales in the US in 2006, attributed to Will Smith‘s movie The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Smith’s homeless character solves a Rubik’s Cube and impresses a businessman… Extreme devotees find completing it easy. Their focus is on speed, stamina or overcoming extra obstacles – such as being blindfolded”.
Thinking back to my own RC playing days (or should that be ‘playing daze’?), I started off with the aim of trying to complete one side of the same colour, then one row, then two rows, and then three rows (i.e., a completed cube). Once I had mastered how to do it, the aim was to do it as fast as I could. Over time, the motivations and reasons for doing the puzzle changed. I spent more an more time doing it and I suppose I would describe it as a kind of tolerance (i.e., needing to spend more and more time playing it to feel good in a good mood). The notion that trying to complete the RC is addictive is not new. In fact, back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:
“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.
In the BBC article, Tom de Castella reported the case of Hampshire builder Graham Parker who after 26 years of trying, finally solved the RC in 2009. Parker allegedly wept when he finally solved it even though the activity “caused him backache and put a strain on his marriage”.In the same article, IT worker Billy Jeffs learned to solve the RC after making a bet and claimed that “When you learn to solve it the first time you either get the bug or not. It’s quite hard to leave the house without one. I have three in my bag”.
Despite the BBC article using the word ‘addicted’ in the title, no-one interviewed was anywhere near to being addicted based on the quotes that de Castella cited. I’m also unaware of any academic research that has examined the excessive playing of RCs (let alone research that has examined any potential addiction). The reference I cited in my own 1996 paper on behavioural addictions was actually from a story in the New York Times by Ron Alexander. However, although the RC is described by Alexander as an “addictive invention” there is again little evidence that any of the people interviewed in the article were actually addicted.
As there appeared to be little evidence either in academic or journalistic articles, in the name of research I went searching on the internet for anecdotal evidence of RC addiction. There were the usual types of humour (such as ’50 reasons you know you’re addicted to speed solving [the Rubik’s Cube]’) and ‘Signs of Rubik’s Cube addiction’) but I did come across what appear to be some people that might be having problems with their RC use and/or urges to solve the puzzle. For instance:
- Extract 1: “I Have recently been diagnosed with Rubik’s Cube Addiction Syndrome and it is getting out of control. Every time I try to stop, I cant put it down for five minutes! I just have to solve it! Everyone says it’s just a phase but I really don’t think it is”.
- Extract 2: “I was once [a Rubik’s Cube] addict as well. And I decided since everyone thought it was dumb that I was obsessed with thing I would teach them how to solve a Rubik’s cube so they too saw the magic and became obsessed…I taught someone who got really good and caught on fast then challenged me to a showdown. Luckily I won …but unluckily I was so happy that I won I threw the cube on the ground like a touchdown in football and it burst into a million pieces all over the school till I lost some and had to buy a new one but never got around to it resulting in me becoming unobsessed with the thing”.
- Extract 3: “I have been cubing for like 3 years now…maybe a little more. I don’t have the urge to solve a cube more than once, but if I see a cube that is unsolved, in a friend’s room, or anywhere that is unsolved, I want to pick it up and solve it. After I do that I usually just put it back down and forget about it though”.
- Extract 4: “Many cubers have been accused of addiction to the Rubik’s Cube at least once. What is it about a 3x3x3 cube that turns someone into a crazed speedsolver? It all seems to start the same way, an innocent mission to find the ‘how to’ and ‘why’ behind Rubik’s design. I had two friends in high school that knew how to solve the cube…I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it… There I was, completing a task that boggled most challengers. The first few days just the completion was enough for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Diminishing returns is a pain though, and the satisfaction wore off because the challenge of it wore off. My first recorded time for the 3x3x3 was over 5 minutes. Nervous fingers, shaking hands, and fuming inner dialogue…ahhh, yes, the good stuff. The second solve was sub-5 (under 5 minutes), and I got that warm fuzzy feeling again! Within a few days I was consistently under 2 minutes. ‘What if I can go a little faster?’ It was the question that drove me personally in my journey, and ultimately it is what grabs everyone”.
- Extract 5: “Rubik’s Cube is played very frequently because it is very addicting. Many people ‘infected’ by Rubik cube only because they see their friend or seller play the cube. Once somebody addicted by the cube, it will be very difficult to escape from the addiction. Rubik’s Cube is often played during the lessons and many of the players often ignore their teacher or their friends who ask something. They don’t respond quickly to their surroundings. They may become antisocial. They play alone and only focus to the cube. Rubik’s Cube also may cause mental and physical disorder. People who play Rubik’s Cube usually play it for many hours non-stop. It is dangerous for eyes. It makes the eyes focuses and work hard. Many of them sleep below 8 hours only to solve puzzle that not yet solved. It disturbs human metabolism activity that only can be happen while sleeping”.
Another article entitled ‘Rubik’s Cube 3×3 – Psychological Barriers and Addiction?!’ claimed that “is rumored there was a divorce filed in the United States, with the basis for its request being a spouse obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube. I’m not sure if this is true and would love to find confirmation”.
Whether anyone has ever been genuinely addicted to the RC is highly debatable but there have been a few alleged medical conditions associated with excessive Rubik’s Cube use including ‘Rubik’s Wrist’ (“a reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome caused by hours of ‘speedcubing’ a Rubik’s Cube, which entails repeated rotation of the wrist”) and ‘Cuber’s Thumb’ (pretty much the same thing but applied to the thumb rather than the wrist and referred to in letters published in the early 1980s in both the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine). Although I have always claimed that almost any activity can become potentially addictive if the reward mechanisms are in place, I have yet to be convinced that there are any real RC addicts out there.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alexander, R. (1981). A cube popular in all circles. New York Times, 21 July, p. C6.
Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Orford, J. (1985). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Wiley: Chichester.
Scheffler, I. (2014). Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing. The Guardian, May 2. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/02/rubiks-cube-competitive-world-speedcubing
Thompson, J. M. (1982). Cuber’s thumb. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 126(7), 773.
Waugh, D. (1981). Cuber’s thumb. New England Journal of Medicine, 305(13), 768
Wikipedia (2014). Rubik’s Cube. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubik’s_Cube